Students’ reactions to QEP Service Reflection Groups will likely spark change in coming school year

KNOXVILLE  — As part of Johnson University’s 10-year accreditation cycle, the faculty are required to develop a Quality Enhancement Plan to meet SACSCOC’s standards. SACCOC is the university’s regional accreditation body’s standards.

JU’s QEP plan is the Metacognitive Understanding for Service Engagement program, which launched this year.

Freshman students here at JUTN are the first to experience the Service Reflection Groups as a part of the MUSE quality enhancement plan this semester, and reviews are mixed.

The biggest complaints are that the experience is not for credit, that students are required to buy textbooks, and that administration has not communicated well with the students.

JUTN freshman, August Cox, who dropped the SRG after one meeting, said he felt blindsided by the SRG requirement.

“None of us knew about it until three-fourths of our way through last semester,” he said. “They wanted us to buy a textbook and have assignments weekly and lead classes and all this stuff for a class that was worth zero credits.”

Tommy Smith, Vice President for Academic Affairs, said that the zero-credit nature of the SRGs is not unusual for a graduation requirement.

“The service learning has never had hours, there’s never been credit, its a graduation requirement,” he said. “Most schools that I know do not give credit for chapel but they still require chapel for graduation.”

Smith said that because the class does not have credit it is free for students to take this semester.

“The service learning program now is so much better designed,” he said. “There’s more intent behind it, there’s a specific goal. This is a great deal, in essence you’re getting a free class. Okay, you’ve got to do some reading and you’ve got to go to the session. I think the trade-off is worth it.”

Smith said that the administration admittedly did not communicate the MUSE plan effectively.

“Two years ago when all this was done there was huge marketing, we had MUSE courses in chapel and so we sold this QEP to the student body,” he said. “Well none of the freshmen were there of course. So we sold it to one group of students who really had nothing to do with it.”

Cox said he feels that Johnson already asks for students to engage in extra curricular requirements without providing credit.

“I feel like with the SALT volunteering and the extra curricular stuff we do at Johnson anyway, including like chapel and all this stuff, I don’t think they need to add more things,” he said.

JUTN Freshman, Courtney Callow said she thought the SRGs would be similar to Freshman Cornerstone small groups when she first heard of them.

“I thought it was going to be like our cornerstone groups where you just go and talk and its just discussion and so I wasn’t too upset about that,” she said. “They didn’t tell us there was going to be any work or anything cause they just kept saying that they hadn’t decided yet.

“So we get in there and we have like two textbooks and we have assignments and we’re like ‘this isn’t for credit.’ So it was just kind of frustrating,” she added.

Cox said many of the freshmen are frustrated.

“I’m definitely in the majority,” he said. “When that happened me and Eli (Birchfield) we both were super frustrated with it and started talking to people and after just talking to so many people about how its a zero credit class I know that at least six people just on our hall dropped the class as well.”

While several other students voiced frustration, none were willing to comment on the record.

Cox said that prior knowledge might have prevented him from dropping the class and Callow said she felt the concept behind the groups were not well-communicated by the school.

“They [faculty] came in not knowing exactly what they were going to do. So that made us [students] more confused,” she said. “They just need to be more upfront and knowledgeable about what they’re doing instead of talking to us before they know.”

Dean of the School of Arts and Sciences, Gary Stratton, said that administration understands the difficulties that have arisen with this requirement.

“Anytime you do anything different you need to over communicate,” he said. “Just because something is said in someone’s presence doesn’t mean its communicated. The hand off was not smooth and I should have made sure it was smoother.”

Cox said he experienced that feeling of frustration firsthand.

“If it was in my requirements I would have been a lot less frustrated about it because I knew I had SALT hours and small group but this is just something they sprung on me at the later half of my first semester,” Cox said.

Stratton said faculty are working to fix the perceived issue.

“Because that first service reflection group feels like a class and there are books to buy and there are assignments to do, we realized we needed academic credit for it,” he said.

Stratton said that the SRG requirement will likely be changing next semester, which hopefully will help ease frustrations.

Callow said that students are not fully participating in the current SRG because they know it is not for credit.

“I think [Dr. Kirk McClelland] knew that if we knew we didn’t have to do work nobody would,” she said. “Students are starting to pick that up, that we don’t have to do the work in that class.”

McClelland was brought in at the beginning of 2016 to facilitate the SRGs and direct the Quality Enhancement Plan. He was not involved in the development of the MUSE.

Even with the change to credit, Cox still sees other issues.

He said that he feels students can get something out of the class but he said he does not think that it will change a student’s mind about servanthood.

“I really think that if you want to come and have a servant heart making people do it is not going to encourage [anyone],” he said. “I feel like if someone comes here and doesn’t want to volunteer, this class isn’t going to make them want to.”

April Kilinski, professor of English and literature, and Mark Weedman, professor of philosophy and ethics, served as two of the faculty members who designed MUSE.

Weedman and Kilinski said that, by design, they have not been involved in the SRGs since writing the plan.

Weedman provided insight into their motivation while writing the plan.

“The idea was we would add a metacognitive component to the academic side and a metacognitive component to the service learning side,” he said. “So [the] SRGs are the metacognitive component that we added to the SALT side.”

Kilinski said that developing a servant identity was central to their goal for students participating in the SRGs.

“We noticed that a lot of students kind of approached their SALT and service as kind of an inroad to ‘this is what I’m going to do for my profession.’,” she said. “Which is not necessarily a bad thing but my thinking was, we need to get people serving and thinking about service reflectively, thoughtfully [and] in a Kingdom minded way.

“Maybe, in advance of picking a major so that your service doesn’t just become a means to an end to get a internship and then get a job,” she added.

Kilinski and Weedman said that the classes were designed with the best interest of not only the student but the community in mind.

“Presumably when you choose Johnson you have [service] at the heart of what you want to do,” Kilinski said. “These classes are helping you to do that, they are setting you up to learn how to do service well.”

Weedman said that reflection should not only increase a student’s servant ability, but their overall experience at JU.

“We became convinced that reflection on your education helps a lot, its value adding,” he said. “The idea is that it will make SALT better and it will make the core better hopefully. So that’s what I would say is you’re going because it will make the experience better.”

Weedman said that the service learning portion of the MUSE plan is unlike any QEP the design team had seen.

“We looked at all of the service learning programs in the area and no one has anything like this at all,” he said. “Its unique among our sister institutions and Johnson is really one of the few schools that is configured to be able to pull this off.”

“You have to do service, hopefully you want to do service, here’s how it can be made better for you and for the people you’re serving,” Kilinski added.

Stratton said the focus of service will not change in the SRG, and that new core learning standards for the university will actually strengthen the focus on service.

“I think we have a more clear set of core goals now in place that might make it much simpler and more easy to understand,” he said. “Right now we’ve got two different proposals that we just haven’t quite figured out.”

Stratton said the new plan will likely involve a significant change to Freshman Cornerstone.

“We’ve taken the biblical meta-narrative out, and we’re moving some of the spiritual formation into the freshman chapel so I think we’re going to get the workload to be appropriate for it to be a one credit class,” he said. “The second semester you’ll take [what] will be the SRGs but they’ll be getting one credit for it.

“Then sometime, normally during your sophomore year, we’ll be asking students to do some sort of intercultural experience,” he added.

Stratton said that students who think the class time would be better spent in service should see the class as crucial training for that service.

“We really want to be a Great Commission University, we really want people that are out extending the kingdom of God among all peoples and we all know from the history of missions that its possible to think you’re doing that and you’re actually doing more harm than good,” he said. “So that’s really what this is all designed for.”

Stratton said that time spent in service learning is very important and he understand students who are eager to be in the field.

“I really applaud students that jump ahead and are getting involved in doing service learning right from the start,” he said. “But this presupposition of, ‘I don’t need college to teach me to serve better’ is pretty – well when they’re seniors they’ll look back and say, ‘that was really naive.’

“To become somebody who can thoughtfully engage in the world and be a real agent of transformation in the world is not something we just do automatically and well,” he added.

Stratton said that the role of the church in social issues and service has changed over time but he said requirements like the SRGs are a possible first step in changing that role in the future.

“We’d really like the 22nd century to look different by Johnson training students that can thoughtfully engage everything that’s going on and really be agents of shalom in bringing social justice and human flourishing into every element of society in every society on earth,” he said.

The new standards Stratton mentioned are also part of the university’s 10-year reaffirmation accreditation process.

“The concern of the accrediting association is how are we improving student learning,” Tommy Smith, Vice President of Academic Affairs, said. “So the overall goal of the reflection groups is to be able to engage in service learning and then in order for the learning part of that to take place, to be able to reflect on that learning.”

Smith said that the plan was to eventually equip students to lead the SRGs.

“Out of this first set of SRGs, [McClelland] would identify students who he would be able to train and mentor and then he would leave those students to lead those groups,” he said. “So it would be self-perpetuating and rather than it just being a faculty driven project it would be a faculty and student driven project.”

McClelland was interviewed for this article but asked that all questions be directed to Stratton.

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